As you probably heard yesterday, the Lakers have decided to fully take the plunge and immerse their front office in something completely new and different:
The team announced this decision yesterday, which included promoting Johnson to President of Basketball Operations, firing GM Mitch Kupchak, and reassigning Jim Buss from his previous role of executive vice president of basketball operations. The move is not entirely surprising; Magic recently said in an interview that he wanted to “call the shots” in the organization and his hiring as an adviser to the owner seemed to suggest that this day was coming. However, the timing of the decision was bizarre, as Johnson was assigned to his new, all-powerful post just two days before the NBA’s trade deadline; this is a time when most front offices would need as much stability as possible to make important decisions in a team’s future.
Instead, the Lakers went in the opposite direction and hired Johnson, a franchise legend who, with this most recent assignment, has now played, coached, owned a stake in, and made basketball decisions for the Lakers. No matter what you think of this hire, that feat is awfully impressive.
However, the decision to put an inexperienced legend in charge of basketball decisions needs to be seriously questioned.
Johnson’s most important job as President of Basketball Operations will be as a talent evaluator. If you want a sense of how that will go, here are some of Johnson’s old tweets:
I love Okafor because he’s won a state championship in HS, NCAA Title at Duke and he can bring that championship pedigree to the Lakers.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) June 10, 2015
The Dallas Mavericks’ trade for Rajon Rondo puts them in position to be a contender in the Western Conference.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) December 19, 2014
The Bucks just acquired the next Jason Kidd in Michael Carter-Williams.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) February 20, 2015
For all of you out there questioning Jimmer Fredette of BYU, he is the real deal. #MenCare
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) March 20, 2011
For as great as those tweets are, though, this one has to be my favorite:
The only way San Antonio or Miami don’t win the championship is if neither team makes the finals.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) March 7, 2014
Finally, a prediction Magic was right about! To be fair to Magic, though, saying bizarre and incorrect things on Twitter does not necessarily translate to failure as a front office executive. It just means that, well, his evaluation skills might need some work. That is not the end of the world; for example, the Celtics hired Danny Ainge as President of Basketball Operations in 2003; while he has not been perfect in this role, he currently has the Celtics as one of the best teams in the East and may have casually finessed his way to the #1 pick in this year’s draft. Ainge’s is the blueprint Johnson must follow in his new role.
One would figure that even as he assumes the power of his new role, Johnson would attempt to surround himself with experienced/skilled executives who have been around front offices and can provide a different perspective. If his first hire as President of Basketball Operations is any indication, however, Magic probably isn’t doing that.
In a move that broke yesterday, the Lakers are expected to hire well-renowned agent and Rob Lowe look-alike Rob Pelinka as their new GM. Pelinka also has zero front office experience and, perhaps most significantly, was Kobe Bryant’s agent throughout much of his career; he was also widely regarded as the sixth member of Michigan’s early 90s Fab Five, as he was a reserve guard on the Wolverine team that went to back-to-back national championship games in 1992 and 1993.
Pelinka’s hiring begs this question, though: if Johnson and Pelinka are heading the Lakers front office, how long is it until Kobe Bryant gets involved in the Lakers’ dealings? It is merely speculation at this point, but one would logically think that the Black Mamba would have some type of advisory role in the front office sooner or later, even if it is not an official role.
Also: what kind of responsibilities will Johnson and Pelinka have? One would think that Pelinka would be tasked with more of the day-to-day decision-making and cap expertise. After all, Magic admitted that he does not have a full understanding of the collective bargaining agreement (which, in some cases, is a prerequisite to holding a job like Magic’s) and that is why he hired someone like Pelinka as General Manager. Johnson would likely be more of a figurehead who has final say over roster decisions, the coaching staff, etc. We’ll see how the power shakes out, but the Lakers have now placed two complete neophytes in substantial front office roles. It will be interesting to see what results of this and who else is hired into LA’s front office.
Johnson also takes over the Lakers at a critical time for the franchise. The team is in its first season with new head coach Luke Walton and most agree that he is the right man to coach the team going forward. The organization has had three top ten draft picks in as many drafts and has converted those picks into Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, and Brandon Ingram. All three have been solid, competent players, but none looks like a superstar yet (Ingram likely has the highest potential of achieving stardom and also has the longest way to go to fully develop).
This is going to be Johnson’s job in this draft. The Lakers’ first-round pick is top-three protected this year; if it falls outside of the top three, it goes to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Lakers currently possess the third-worst record in the league and may or may not be tanking to improve their chances at a top pick in the lottery. In such a talented and deep draft, though, having a top-three pick will be enormous for the future of the Lakers. Converting that pick into a superstar is what Johnson must do if the Lakers want to improve their standing in the West.
Even though the new regime only took hold yesterday, the Lakers are already hard at work; hours after the shakeup, the team traded guard Lou Williams to the Rockets for Corey Brewer and Houston’s first-round draft pick, which will likely fall near the end of the first round. This seems like a logical trade, but Magic could have squeezed more out of the Rockets if he wanted to; Williams ranks eighth in the league in points per 36 minutes among eligible players and Houston likely would have surrendered more if the Lakers asked for it. This subtraction will hurt the Lakers in the interim, which probably is not an accident.
Magic Johnson is taking over the Lakers at a pivotal time for the franchise. The team must convert their draft pick into a star in this draft and build an organization capable of attracting star free agents in future years. The Lakers are rolling the dice in tasking him with basketball decisions, and the last time a former player and coach was hired to an executive basketball position he had no prior experience in, it didn’t go so well. I’ll just leave that right there.
But, we must keep an open mind with the hiring of Magic Johnson. After all, the fact that it’s an enormous risk doesn’t mean that there won’t be an enormous payoff down the road.